Birth to 2

All babies and toddlers are egocentric--the world, including parents, is an extension of themselves, existing to meet their needs. Although young children can feel a strong attachment to other people and objects, respectfulness requires a sense of their own separateness. It's hard for a toddler to grasp, for example, that the toy he wants belongs to another child or that parents have needs separate from his own.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Show your child that you care about his feelings--by sympathizing with his needs, comforting his fears, and explaining what you're doing rather than swooping down to change or feed him.
  • When your toddler is around a dog or cat, teach her to respect the animal by petting it gently and asking the owner if you can touch the animal before you do.
  • What's the Goal? To foster basic respect for himself and other living things.

    3 to 4

    By age 3, language skills and cognitive abilities have grown enough that preschoolers understand that hitting and grabbing toys are wrong because they hurt others or make them feel bad. But they're still too young to consistently curb their impulses and often need reminders. Children in day care and preschool learn rules that encourage respect, such as waiting their turn or sitting down during story time so that the kids behind them can see the pictures. They often comply because they want to please their teachers and are beginning to care about their friends.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Give him advance warning before he has to stop an activity to teach him consideration.
  • Insist on basic manners--"please," "thank you," and "sorry"--as a tangible way for kids to express thoughtfulness and win adult approval.
  • What's the Goal? To develop respect for rules and manners.

    5 to 7

    The early elementary-school years are characterized by a profound respect for authority. Children this age believe their parents and teachers are the arbiters of right or wrong, and they aim to please these important adults. A kindergartner, for example, may have trouble consistently following the rule to avoid calling out--but she will not question the teacher's authority to set that rule. At the park, they may pick up their ice cream wrapper because their parent tells them to, not because they want to keep the park clean for others.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Take a nature walk with your child and talk about which plants are OK to pick and which are endangered to teach respect for our environment.
  • Compliment your child when he follows a rule that you've set.
  • What's the Goal? To develop an internalized sense of respect for people and surroundings.

    8 to 10

    As children get older, they receive mixed messages about respect. The media have a lot to do with this. While parents may urge kids to respect others' feelings, movies show portray putdowns and body noises as funny; while teachers convey lessons about tolerance, TV shows abound with off-color jokes and demeaning sexual stereotypes. Adults can also be negative role models-if they speak rudely to a waiter, curse at slow drivers, or treat their own parents disrespectfully. It's not easy for children to sort out these messages.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Model respect by speaking to service people and older members of your family politely and with respect.
  • Watch TV with your child and comment on rude or intolerant characters, saying, "That man doesn't respect his wife-that wouldn't be unacceptable behavior in our house."
  • What's the Goal? Be a role model for your child and develop a standard of respect that transcends mixed messages they may be getting from pop culture.

    11 to 13

    Preteens begin to reject the authority of parents and teachers as a way of establishing their independence. They may question their parent's right to set rules regarding how many friends can come over their house or when they have to be picked up at a party. They don't see these rules as a way of ensuring the safety and comfort of family members; they see them merely as attacks on their autonomy.

    At school, preteens are eager to win the approval of their friends. They may show great kindness toward the kids they like, but be rude and insulting to kids outside their clique. They may even steal or damage others' property because they think that's how to appear cool to their friends. It may be a few years before they regard respect as an overriding moral standard.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Encourage empathy if you discover your child is making fun of less popular peers--how would she feel if someone played tricks on her?
  • Explain the reasoning behind household rules, saying, for example, "Grandma usually calls tonight, and I want her to be able to get through, so you can't call your friends until she's called."
  • What's the Goal? To foster a sense of right and wrong independent of parental rules.

    14 to 18

    Much to the chagrin of their parents, young teenagers work out many of their internal struggles in public. They overtly show disrespect, speaking nastily to parents and flagrantly disobeying rules. Parents need to realize, however, that by trying out these behaviors, teens are trying to find the answers to some key questions: Who am I? What will I become? What around me truly matters, and therefore deserves my respect?

    Parents also need to be aware that teenagers are sensitive. A teen who feels rejected, unpopular, or unsuccessful may likely have little respect for herself, which may lead her to test out more destructive behaviors (such as drinking or taking drugs).

    As they reach maturity, teens begin to identify with adults and look ahead to their adult roles. This increases their respect for parents and for those who already know how to function in the world of which they will soon be a part.

    What Can Parents Do?

  • Encourage your teen to spend time with an elderly neighbor, nursing home patient, or family member. Emphasize how the elderly deserve our respect.
  • Talk to your teen about how he cannot respect others before he respects himself and his body, that substance abuse and being sexually promiscuous are self-respect issues.
  • What's the Goal? Your child should begin to use moral reasoning to become a respectful participant in the adult world.

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